Ustica is an island located off the Sicily coast about 70 km northwest of Palermo, and falls to the west of the group of islands known as the Aeolian Islands. The island occupies an area of about nine square kilometers and is populated by roughly 1300 people in the comune. Ustica is particularly known for scuba diving, with a number of diving schools established on the island. Recreational divers are attracted by the relatively deep dives, which are a feature of the island's volcanic geology.
Excavations begun in 1989 at Faraglioni have unearthed what was a large prehistoric village dating from the 14th to the 13th century BC. The foundations of some 300 stone-built houses were discovered, and the defensive walls of the settlement are among the strongest fortifications of any period known in Italy. It is believed that these early settlers came over from the Aeolian Islands.
In historic times, the island has been populated at least since about 1500 BC by Phoenician peoples. In ancient Greece, the Island was named Osteodes (ossuary) in memory of the thousands of Carthaginian mutineers left there to die of hunger in the 4th century BC. The Romans renamed the island Ustica, Latin for burnt, for its black rocks. The island is also known locally as the "black pearl".
In the 6th century, a Benedictine community settled in the island, but was soon forced to move because of ongoing wars between Europeans and Arabs. Attempts to colonize the island in the Middle Ages failed because of raids by Barbary pirates.
Ustica started to have a stable population only in the late 18th century, and in this period there was an attempt to improve the safety conditions of the inhabitants.
In 1761 it was re-populated, precisely to avoid it was only being used as a haven for pirates, by transferring to it some of the inhabitants of Lipari, but after an initial defeat in 1762, the pirates retook the island, catching many residents although some managed to evade capture by hiding in the caves of the island.
The issue was finally resolved in 1763 when a contingent of soldiers and workers was sent from Palermo to Ustica, who began the construction of fortifications on the hill of the “Falconiera”, and two towers on opposite sides of the coast, that is above the creek of St. Maria and on that of “Punta Spalmatore.” In the same year 85 families of farmers and fishermen reached here from the Aeolian Islands, as well as a few artisans from Palermo and Trapani, to give a total population of 400 people. They brought with them the patron saint of Lipari, Bartholomew the Apostle, who became the patron saint of Ustica as well.
During the same period the layout of the island was defined, with a central church dedicated to St. Ferdinand in 1765.
In the mid- to late 19th century and early 20th century, as the population of the island grew too large, hundreds of Ustican families emigrated to the United States. Many of these families settled in New Orleans and surrounding areas, where there are today thousands of descendants whose ties remain strong to Ustica. A smaller number of families settled in San Jose and San Francisco, in New York, and in Massachusetts.
Ustica is particularly known for scuba diving, with a number of diving schools established on the island. Recreational divers are attracted by the relatively deep dives, which are a feature of the island's volcanic geology.
Because Ustica is a small island with limited resources, several waves of emigration have left Ustica.
In the mid 19th century, groups of usticesi left for America, notably for New Orleans. Enough had arrived by the 1860s that, in the American Civil War, a regiment of Italians including many Usticesi fought for the Confederacy. Today, around 30,000 residents of New Orleans claim Usticesi ancestry.
Another wave of usticesi left for the San Francisco bay area in the late nineteenth century. Many settled in the fertile Santa Clara Valley, whose mild Mediterranean climate was reminiscent of Ustica.
At the turn of the twentieth century many usticesi went to North Africa in search of land and employment.